By Delbert Whitman Jr
I was toiling away in my shop one morning, attempting to bring back to life a much-loved piece of British shotgun esoterica. The tedium was broken by a phone call from Ron, a wonderful client. Ron is an avid wingshooter and a connoisseur of fine and unique guns. He also is what I would refer to as “chronically left-handed.” While most left-handed shooters can get away with a gun that has a straight stock or even a touch of cast-on, Ron requires a massive amount of cast-on; thus, over the years I have bent or re-stocked almost all of his shotguns.
On the phone Ron recounted that he had been on vacation in Ireland and had been staying at Ballynahinch Castle Hotel. While there he had visited a gunshop that was nearby. He said that he had found one gun of interest and purchased it. He planned on importing it and having me take a look at it, to see if I could make anything out of it. Incidences like this are always worrisome to me. Every now and again a bargain can be had, but in most cases the deal ends with me having an uncomfortable conversation with the client about wasted money and fruitless hopes.
In this case two things provided hints of optimism: The gun had been made by topnotch Scottish gunmaker J.D. Dougall, and it was a 28-bore toplever back-action hammergun. The serial number put the manufacture date at 1881-’82. A smallbore hammergun from this maker would be quite rare and interesting, indeed. J.D. Dougall started making guns in the 1840s. At the time of this gun’s manufacture, he had shops in Glasgow and London and was considered a top-tier maker.
In due course the gun made its way to my shop. As I opened the wooden shipping crate, I had no idea what to expect. At first glance, I thought my worst suspicions had been confirmed. The gun looked beyond rough. The stock was the color of used motor oil and clearly had broken at the wrist and been repaired, badly. The toplever was loose and floppy. The screw slots looked like someone had attempted to turn them with a crowbar. But as I have discovered, first impressions can be deceiving; so I proceeded with an extremely thorough inspection. And the more I dug into things, the more optimistic I became.
The barrels were in suprisingly good condition. The 28″ tubes were beautiful, “best”-quality, three-stub Damascus, and because both bores measured .552″, I doubted they ever had been honed. The chokes were set at the very usable configuration of Skeet 1 and Improved Cylinder. The ribs and all of the solder joints were tight and sound. The bores were bright and had very little frosting, while the wall thicknesses were more than acceptable. The barrel browning showed some expected wear but was still quite nice.
I found the action mechanism and locks to be in equally good shape. The barrels were still tight and on-face. The floppy toplever was due to nothing more than a stripped screw that connected the toplever spindle to the locking bolt. The lockwork was elegant and in good working order. The blacking on all of the furniture was mostly gone, and there was little pitting. Despite that, all of the engraving remained sharp.
The stock and forend wood, on the other hand, was in horrid condition—oil soaked, cracked and broken, dinged and gouged—and the grip cap was missing. All that could be said was that the stock was well beyond any hope of salvage. The screw heads and slots also were in horrible condition and could not be tolerated. It still perplexes how the barrels and action could have been in such good shape while the wood and screws were so butchered. Perhaps some questions are better left unanswered.
The thing that struck me most about the gun was the small size of the action. Including the length of the top tang, the action easily was covered by the palm of my hand. This was not a “miniature” or “child’s gun,” as the furniture and other fittings were proportioned for an average adult, but the size of the action and profile of the breaches were uniquely small.
I called Ron and had a long conversation about the possibilities for the gun. A new stock and forend would have to be made. Every exterior screw would have to be replaced. If he wanted to give me the green light to move forward, he would end up with a very distinct gun. After some consideration, Ron decided to go ahead with the project. Times like that remind me of a small sign that a certain high-end gun dealer has on his table at gun shows. It reads: “Life is short; write the check.”
And so it began. I allocated a stunning piece of feather-crotch English walnut to the gun. The blank was 22 years old and perfectly seasoned. Designing and making the stock was a bit of a challenge, being that the action was so minuscule and that most of the stock dimensions needed to be full-size. I also had to make the steel grip cap and screw from scratch, as one that was small enough could not be purchased commercially.
Properly fitting and inletting the back-action locks into the wood required great care because, unlike more common bar-action sidelocks, they basically float in the wood behind the action and must be made to align perfectly with the action body, triggerplate and firing pins all at the same time. I finished the stock with a traditional British hand-rubbed linseed oil and checkered it with a period-correct 24-lines-per-inch point pattern.
I found the most challenging part of the project to be the screws. Other than the bridle screws for the locks, I made every screw from scratch—eight of them in all. They were turned from O-1 tool steel and cut with thin regulated slots. I then engraved them with the original pattern and hardened and tempered them. It’s amazing how much time and effort can go into making just one proper gun screw.
At long last the project was finished. Lying on my bench, for the first time completely assembled with all of the small parts polished and blacked, was a unique and stunning piece of work. Balancing about 5/8″ in front of the hinge pin and weighing just less than 5 pounds, the gun felt incredibly fast in the hands and seemed like it would be perfect for small, fast-flying birds that flush unexpectedly.
Ron was very pleased with the result. Today the gun looks very different than it did in that small shop near the castle in Ireland. He has thoroughly put it through its paces on clays and more than a few bobwhite quail, including a few doubles.
Nothing makes me happier than knowing that my clients are enjoying and putting to good use the guns I have worked on. Hopefully that fine little Dougall will be putting feathers on the ground for another 135 years.